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Water Diplomacy-India’s position in South Asia

Water Diplomacy-India’s position in South Asia

By Krishna Koundaniya

Edited by Madhavi Roy, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

Wars have been fought throughout history for myriads of reasons, and water happens to be one of them. This indispensable resource is crucial for any nation’s security and given its finiteness, disputes are a natural occurrence. In the modern times, nation states resort to diplomatic channels to resolve disputes which constitute the strategy of water diplomacy.

In the negotiations for agreements, MoUs three structural factors essentially drive the process; geography, economic clout and climate change. In this we broadly explore India’s relations with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan in terms of water diplomacy.

India-Bangladesh relations are characterized by disputes and discontentment. Issues revolve mostly around sharing Ganga Waters. India prefers a bilateral approach while Bangladesh demands a multilateral approach. Differences crop primarily out of the geographical factor, i.e. India has the upper course of Ganga while Bangladesh has the lower course. Two treaties (1976, 1996) & two MoUs (1982, 1985) have been agreed upon. India is accused of non-equitable sharing of water. Land fertility and soil fertility are affected by India’s water withholding upstream and this stems from an increasing population. Climate change is also a serious issue and flooding in the coastal country is attributed to it.

India-Bhutan relations are characterized by cooperation and trade. Bhutan consumes only 48.7% of the total energy produced and India is its largest export partner in energy. Therefore, economics is the primary driver. India helps Bhutan build hydel projects while signing a buy-back agreement. Pay-off structures of projects look good and with early warning systems and robust disaster management procedures, protocols in place, climate change and geographical factors have little to no role.

India-Nepal relations are characterized by disagreements and needs based negotiations. The Kosi agreement was initially for flood control but later expanded to irrigation and hydel power. Disputes have emerged over unfair compensation and power sharing agreements. The Gandak project was criticized for the scheme of distribution of irrigation waters in command area in which Nepal got a bitter deal. The Mahakali Treaty of 1996 initially brought smiles on either side of the table but later became an irritant mainly because all the agreed points were not translated into ground realities. This relation was driven by the geographical and economic factors.

India-Pakistan relations are characterized by conflict. The Indus Water treaty of 1960 under the World Bank resulted in a partition by which Western rivers (Sutlej, Beas , Ravi) were given to India and the Eastern rivers (Indus, Jhelum, Chenab) were given to Pakistan. No formal agreement exists between the two countries, hence no chance for an optimal solution. Pakistan opposes India’s decision to build dams across the Western rivers. Hydel projects revolving around Dulhasti, Lake Wular, Salal, Kishenganga and Baglihar can be highlighted. This relation is driven by economic and geographical factors. 97% of Pakistan’s water is used for irrigation, and electricity generation is becoming a national priority. These could flare up as issues in diplomatic relations.

India-Maldives relations are in the news because of the water crisis which hit the island nation. Due to geographic limitations, the island nation does not have any natural sources of water. It depends entirely on treated sea water, and recently, due to a fire in a treatment plant, about a hundred thousand citizens of Male lost their source of drinking water. India sent 200 tonnes of drinking water. However, India did not choose to leverage this for resolving issues arising out of round tripping.

Given the complexity of issues and each country having its own priorities, India had done well to opt for a multi-pronged strategy for its water diplomacy catering to the specific needs of these nations, but there are few areas where it falls flat.

The agreements, treaties and MoUs, generally, are driven by the rights based approach. The Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan, Ganges Water Treaty with Bangladesh and the Mahakali Treaty with Nepal have followed the rights based approach, which eventually resulted in a clash of wills ending in animosity regardless of the outcome. The whole paradigm needs to be redefined in terms of a “Needs based approach”, where the needs of the people are recognized and prioritized, which is ostensibly visible in relations with Bhutan.

Socio-centric and holistic solutions are desired which creates legitimate stakeholders across the borders. The current technology centric approach takes the hydrology, environment and economics into consideration only.

Time is running out, but it is never too late to take the right step to pursue the right path. A prudential and equitable approach to water diplomacy, which are in fact the guiding principles of India’s foreign policy, can foster peace, mutual cooperation and coexistence in South Asia.

Krishna Koundiniya is an entrepreneur, Co-Founder of an e-Commerce start up. He holds MBA from IMT–Ghaziabad, B Tech gold medallist, state level boxer, cricketer, amateur musician & graphologist (AP Judiciary). He worked with Deloitte, Infosys, Vizag Steel specializing in IT, Finance. He assisted CFO, GMs in financial valuations and planning. He co-founded a robotics platform for R&D and successfully implemented home automation projects, car tracking and vibration test rigs using smart phone,,[email protected].

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